x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Follow the Spanish template

Barcelona drew up the blueprint, Spain adopted it and Holland would do well to copy it. The likes of Xavi and Iniesta herald a new dawn of acuity.

Xavi, No 8, and Fabregas are icons of flair.
Xavi, No 8, and Fabregas are icons of flair.

Soccer City in Soweto will have a new name sooner or later. The next big event at the venue of the 2010 World Cup final is to be a rugby union Test match and, with more 15-a-side clashes scheduled, the site will need to loosen its titular ties to just one sport.

Casually, the stadium has already become known as "The Calabash" among local fans for its reddish brown exterior and its bowl shape. On Sunday night, Holland put the 'bash' into Calabash, with some of their players apparently under the impression that football's rules had taken on some of the manhandling techniques of rugby. An undistinguished, often dirty World Cup final would eventually be salvaged by a good goal. By the fact that a penalty shoot-out had been avoided by Andres Iniesta's extra-time winner and that the outcome, victory for Spain, at least rewarded the team who aspire to the more charming principles with the biggest prize of all.

The goal itself was nicely taken and, though not a contender for the best of the tournament, nor even the best of the eight goals scored by Spain at the World Cup, had enough of the fine trademarks of the European and world champions in its construction that when it is replayed over the years, people will recall what was special about this generation of Spanish footballers. There is Iniesta's backheel, for instance, at the start of the move; a subtle, imaginative touch that disorientated a set of opponents so convinced of their collective technical inferiority that they had set out to overwhelm Spain through muscle and aggression.

That approach cost Holland nine yellow cards and a red one. Happily, the quick weaving movements and passes that led to Iniesta's goal then showed that nimble footballers can overcome more brutal types. The delicate, seemingly fragile Jesus Navas was involved in the build-up, as, with the pass that set up Iniesta to control and volley past Maarten Stekelenburg, was Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas and Iniesta have a common background, the Barcelona cantera youth system. They share this upbringing with six other players in Spain's victorious squad.

The coincidences between Barcelona, twice the winners of the Champions League in the past five years, and Spain are obvious: Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro and the recently-signed David Villa all participated in Sunday's final, while Victor Valdes, the Barca goalkeeper, sat on the bench. Their body language evident in the familiar routines of footballers who have not only grown up together, but matured wedded to a certain style.

"You look at the way Andres, Xavi or Cesc play, and you see the mark of the background they have in common," remarks Valdes. "They are the type of midfielder who are always looking for the through pass, the nice angles, always looking forward." The through-passes, the nice angles, the alert, head-up running and use of the ball was taught to these footballers at La Masia, the academy where aspiring Barca players learn the game, often boarded together and taught that successful football is about possession and precise distribution.

They grow up with the assumption that you do not have to be a muscle-bound giant to thrive in the game. La Masia is the institution that took on Lionel Messi when clubs in Argentina had told him, as a 13-year-old, he was too small to make it in the game. By the same token, Xavi was not told he was too short, nor Iniesta that he looked too dainty. Catalans like to narrate Barcelona's success over the past 20 years: three European Cups, 10 Primera Liga titles - all via an unbroken chain of astute midfield schemers. Now Spaniards from outside the territory will celebrate that tradition as well, because the boys from Barcelona have delivered a first World Cup to the country.

The chain runs from the current head coach of Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, a cerebral, tempo-setting deep midfielder through the 1990s, to Xavi, now 30. Iniesta, 25, then elaborated the role. Fabregas, 23, is the next in line, which is why Barcelona strongly desire that Fabregas should move back to his hometown club from Arsenal. These players have now established a dynasty for Spain. The hope is that it continues, because the game will better off if it looks at La Roja's style. The world's most popular sport did not gain so many devotees by turning into something closer to rugby.